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Credit: Seyoung An

On May 28th, ABC’s hit reality TV franchise, "The Bachelorette" will return. Like any good member of the so-called "Bachelor Nation," I will be on a friend’s couch, eating cheese and crackers, analyzing the first episode, hunting for clues as each contestant is introduced. I’ll also be filling out my bracket for my Bachelorette fantasy league

For the uninitiated, "The Bachelor" and its sister show, "The Bachelorette," are the tentpoles of a vast reality TV empire that began in 2002. The premise is simple: two dozen women vie for the heart of one lucky Bachelor. Flip the genders and you have the premise of "The Bachelorette." The result is a decade and a half of rose ceremonies, exotic vacations, sloppy pool makeouts, and ugly crying in the back of limos.

My slide into the Bachelor fandom was slow. I started watching the show in high school because all of my friends were doing it and, at a certain point, exposure to the franchise simply became unavoidable.

For a long time, I passed my Bachelor obsession off as escapism. I would watch episodes of it on my phone at the gym. It was the digital version of Skinny Pop, a sort of entertainment nothing with just the right coating of ballgowns and beaches to make it go down easy.

I told myself it was part hate-watch, part pseudo-scientific fascination with what seemed like a bizarre social experiment. I put distance between myself and the show. I was not enthralled by "The Bachelor," I told myself, but rather the spectacle of "The Bachelor." Isn’t it crazy what people will do for love, for money, for fame?

To admit that I actually, unironically, no holds barred, love "The Bachelor" would be to compromise my self-professed feminism in two ways: First, I would have to admit that I am a sucker for a love story, for fairy tales, for the general narrative that places not just love, but marriage at the center of a woman’s life. 

Every season of "The Bachelor" is supposed to end in a proposal. It’s a 12-week obstacle course that ends not with mutual love, respect, or sexual fulfillment, but with a shiny diamond engagement ring. 

Second, I would have to admit to myself that my favorite show is one that repeatedly makes a spectacle out of women.

By all accounts, the set of "The Bachelor" is an unpleasant place to be. Contestants are isolated, manipulated, and plied with copious amounts of liquor. The show’s history is rife with slut-shaming and double standards. 

The show as a whole traffics in emotional humiliation. It pits women against each other in intimate, emotionally charged ways and it sells front row tickets to their distress. Last season, producers filmed the prolonged break-up of its lead couple. The Bachelor, Arie Luyendyk Jr, told his betrothed, Becca Kufrin, that he’d had a change of heart. He didn’t actually want to marry her after all. He wanted to be with his runner-up, Lauren.

It was a move that’s not totally unprecedented in Bachelor history, but the show’s decision to film and air the breakup, which took place after the season’s filming had concluded, was a change of pace. Unlike much of the "Bachelor" franchise, the breakup was unedited. It was deeply uncomfortable to watch. There were no sparkly dresses or sandy beaches to distract from the nausea of watching someone’s engagement fall apart in real time on national television.

Midway through the breakup, I was almost ready to swear the show off for good. It felt too voyeuristic, too intrusive, even for reality television. But by the end of the season finale, the franchise had me again — Becca was crowned the next Bachelorette. She was going to get a second shot at finding true love.

At its heart, there’s something troubling about "The Bachelor." It’s like "1984" had a lovechild with "The Notebook." There’s no real feminist redemption here. There’s nothing helpful or intellectual about its content either. Often, there’s nothing in the show that even resembles reality. But to write the show off would be misguided — "The Bachelor" codifies the often subtle ways we think about gender, love, and romance. 

But for all the ways the show’s premise and production stand testament to our deeply entrenched biases when it comes to race, sex, beauty, and emotion, in practice, it can be surprisingly subversive. Despite the show’s obsessive focus on the romantic, the most compelling relationships that emerge on any season are between the female contestants. When the Bachelor is offscreen and the rose-colored glasses are somewhat pulled off, what is left is a thick web of relationships between the women that strengthen and bind and fracture. 

If you reorient your gaze, "The Bachelor" stops being a love story and starts being a tale of female friendship, dependence, and agency under extraordinary circumstances. But if you get distracted by the kissing and the exotic locales I won’t blame you.  

In the end, it’s just reality TV.

REBECCA ALIFIMOFF is a College sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind. studying history. Her email address is ralif@sas.upenn.edu.

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